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ata comments on Scientific Self-Help: The State of Our Knowledge - Less Wrong

138 Post author: lukeprog 20 January 2011 08:44PM

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Comment author: ata 20 January 2011 09:08:46PM *  4 points [-]

A thought I've had about choosing self-help books:

Judging a self-help book by its average rating or reviews on sites like Amazon will probably be misleading. I'd suspect that they are frequently skewed toward higher ratings because of a reviewer self-selection bias: the sorts of people who need self-help books are often the people who will blame themselves for failing to benefit from a book, but will give the book credit (and glowing reviews) if they do get any benefit, which is often chance and/or temporary.

(If PJ Eby's hypothesis of "naturally struggling"/"naturally motivated" mindsets is correct, then those would be the naturally struggling people, while the naturally motivated people can benefit to some degree from almost any self-help book, which may contribute further to them getting more praise than they've earned.)

Comment author: pjeby 21 January 2011 04:07:03PM 6 points [-]

(If PJ Eby's hypothesis of "naturally struggling"/"naturally motivated" mindsets is correct,

See Dweck's research on growth vs. fixed mindsets, and Seligman on optimism vs. pessimism. There are definitely some dichotomies of this sort out there in reality, and in the better self-help literature ("better" as measured by, "I got better results from it") tend to group personality characteristics in similar ways: generally speaking, nobody confuses success characteristics and failure ones.

then those would be the naturally struggling people, while the naturally motivated people can benefit to some degree from almost any self-help book, which may contribute further to them getting more praise than they've earned.)

Naturally motivated people are actually more likely to write a positive review, but yes, people who are struggling can definitely get into a religious zeal about books that they have only read, but not applied. I used to do this myself all the time, and I frequently see it in the emails I get about my own writing.

It seems that this is just the response to feeling validated, justified, and to some extent forgiven for one's past misdeeds: the new book or tape or whatever has presented you with new information that you didn't have before... therefore, you couldn't possibly have been expected to achieve anything, and it's not your fault. What's more, you now have hope for the future as well, and that feels good.

What I'm actually wondering about is whether there's a way to harness this response for good. Like, if I could offer a program where you only get new stuff once you've actually learned some of the old stuff. Mechanically, that's not difficult to accomplish, but developing and sequencing the material is another thing altogether. (Really, sequencing is one of my biggest challenges these days.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 21 January 2011 06:20:43AM 5 points [-]

I check amazon reviews for whether the reviewer says they actually got any useful changes from the book. This is very rare compared to people who recommend self-help books for other reasons like being pleasant to read.

Comment author: sfb 21 January 2011 10:43:08PM 2 points [-]

Has that check helped you?

Whether someone learns advanced piano from a book must be at least as much down to whether they know intermediate piano up to the level the book starts at, as to whether the book is a good guide to advanced piano.

But those divisions of ability and knowledge are even less agreed on in self-help, so matching up where you "are" with a book is less easy, and whether someone else matched with any given book might not be of any real help at all.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 22 January 2011 12:03:03AM 1 point [-]

This does raise the rather embarrassing question of how many of my self-help books I've actually gotten some good out of, and it's something I need to evaluate.

However, the review filter I'm using isn't exactly for identifying which books to look into. It's for eliminating otherwise promising books unless they look very good, and I'm not sure that I've bought any books that no one has reported good results from.